Today’s digitally connected and informed B2B buyers routinely use multiple channels — online marketplaces, informational and self-service websites, trade shows, webinars, referrals, social media, email, text, and yes, salespeople. A compelling customer experience occurs only when interactions between buyers and sellers are value-adding and coordinated across all these digital and personal channels.
When it comes to reaching business customers, digital channels have many distinct advantages — they’re low cost, high reach, available 24/7, and have the flexibility to scale quickly. Tracking is easy, and personalization is possible with the right data and algorithms. While turnover among salespeople skyrockets, turnover of digital capabilities is zero.
Salespeople bring their own strengths. By probing and discerning buyers’ nonverbal emotions, intentions, and level of engagement, salespeople help identify opportunities (including latent ones) while assisting with shaping solutions. Salespeople can cut through digital clutter and get the buyer’s attention. And salespeople help navigate the intricacies of corporate purchasing when decision makers have differing views and objectives.
A harmonized convergence of digital and personal sales channels creates powerful synergies for the buyer, and also for the seller. Efficiency is greater when digital channels take on certain sales tasks, for example, lead generation and qualification, order placement, and product information sharing. This leaves salespeople more time to bring creativity and a personalized approach to customers. Further, AI systems can help make sales efforts more effective, for example, by suggesting what product offerings, marketing messages, or pricing and promotions best match each customer’s needs and preferences. Buyers benefit from a great experience that delivers business value, while sellers realize impact and efficiency.
But there are obstacles to overcome, driven predominantly by having personal selling in the mix. The very source of salespeople’s power in driving a great buying experience comes with complications. While bringing empathy, creativity and flexibility, salespeople also bring egos and the need for control. Digital channels are rules driven and transparent. Salespeople can be unpredictable and opaque. The dynamics are even more complicated when sales incentive plans tie salespeople’s pay to results, bringing the risk of overselling and customer manipulation.
The goal is clear — drive greater customer loyalty and business success by addressing customer pain points, creating value in every interaction, and stitching together the unpredictable pathways buyers use to reach a decision. To start, integrating digital technology and salespeople to achieve a superior customer experience requires a robust digital support system. Key elements include a foundational digital platform, data analytics, and tools that provide a holistic view of buyers and enable the coordination and orchestration of their journey. But equally important is the transformation of sales systems and culture, which involves continual adaptation of sales roles, success profiles, compensation, and management practices. In this article, we largely focus on these sales system and culture elements.
A Digital Backbone
Digital capabilities lay the groundwork for sellers to synchronize customer communications across digital and personal sales channels. These capabilities also provide salespeople with data-based insights that allow them to add value with each customer interaction.
Tools for managing customer relationships have increasingly become faster to implement and more user-friendly. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems capture customer information, but more importantly, these systems support salespeople with broader and more integrated customer data and analytics. AI capabilities give salespeople real-time next-best-action recommendations about what to do with customers. By using analytics-based insights to augment salespeople’s judgement, companies are improving the customer buying experience and driving better sales results.
Most companies also have a marketing activation platform for managing the execution of marketing campaigns and experiences. Leading-edge companies, such as Microsoft, take this a step further by creating a digital customer hub. The hub connects digital assets, including all customer interaction data, an intelligence engine, and channels and programs for delivering insights to customers or salespeople. This helps sales and marketing work together to deliver a better customer experience. Microsoft’s hub synchronizes customer engagement across digital and personal channels. Content and offerings are better tailored to each buying decision-maker. And because the hub brings together data across all the geographies and channels, Microsoft has new insights for optimizing experiences in ways that create the most value for customers.
Sales System and Culture Changes
A digital backbone is essential, but it’s not enough. Superior B2B customer experience necessitates changes to some persistent sales mindsets backed up by changing roles, success profiles, and sales management practices.
Classic dimensions of a winning salesperson indubitably endure. Curiosity, empathy, persistence, customer and product knowledge, and sales skills are table stakes. Informed buyers are looking for more than “talking brochures and websites” and order takers. Salespeople must anticipate customer needs, collaborate, use digital channels and analytics, and adapt constantly to change.
Consider Microsoft account executives (AEs) who sell cloud infrastructure solutions to unicorn startups. With experience across dozens of unicorns, AEs are well positioned to anticipate their customers’ needs, opportunities, and pain points. AEs can bring in other product and solution specialists from inside Microsoft and can coordinate across decision makers with different perspectives. By anticipating their customers’ needs, AEs drive a superior customer experience.
For salespeople to coexist with digital channels, success is both about mindset and capabilities. A legacy and lingering desire of many salespeople is to control relationships with customers, while treating sales methods as proprietary and not to be shared with other team members. The new world of customer experience requires transparency and authenticity. The best salespeople combine the new mindset with the capability to leverage and coexist with digital channels. Further, these salespeople bring value to customers by sharing digitally derived insights, increasingly from AI systems. With digital natives comprising more than 75% of the workforce by 2025, and the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating adoption of technology in the workplace, the new mindset and capabilities are rapidly taking hold.
Finally, although adaptability has always been an important attribute for salespeople, it’s taking on new dimensions now. Novel and complex products benefit from face-to-face selling. As buyers’ knowledge about such products grows, selling through virtual and digital channels may be best. Even within the same sales cycle, a decision maker may want to meet in person at first, connect through virtual channels for later buying steps, and use digital channels for repeat purchases. Creating a positive customer experience requires salespeople to respond to this fluidity in buyer knowledge and preferences. At the same time, sellers must manage any friction that may occur when salespeople must give up some control of customer relationships.
Redefining Sales Success, Incentives and Management
When asked to describe a successful salesperson, the predictable answer is “someone who consistently meets or exceeds their sales goals.” Yes, a successful salesperson achieves sales goals, but that’s no longer enough.
Success today prioritizes delivering exceptional customer experiences and value to buyers. The best salespeople leverage a variety of resources, including experts and virtual and digital channels, to better understand buyer needs and preferences, tailor solutions that offer mutual value, and build long-term relationships based on trust and loyalty.
Legacy sales incentive plans and sales management practices place intense focus on sales goal achievement and large individual incentives. This is not congruent with the new definition of sales success. Sellers are beginning to rethink traditional sales compensation plans while emphasizing other methods of directing and motivating salespeople. We expect future sales incentive plans to look more like management bonus plans, designed to encourage people to work together to make the company and its customers more competitive and prosperous in the long run. Salespeople’s success metrics will focus less on short-term individual results (e.g., quarterly territory sales). Instead, sales success metrics will reflect longer term company and team performance and customer success.
Further, sales management will take a more balanced approach, in which incentives are just one way to direct, motivate, and reward salespeople. New sales roles and success profiles will be reinforced with revised approaches to performance management, coaching, training, sales enablement, and more — all focused on creating a more customer-centric sales culture, a better customer experience, and more sustainable long-term results.
Living With Constant Change
The dizzying pace of change is making new demands on salespeople-driven organizations. Yesterday’s naïve customer is today’s expert. Yesterday’s product will be obsolete tomorrow. Digital tools are becoming smarter and more immersive. The need of the hour is for salespeople and digital to co-exist and constantly re-titrate their role and rhythm. Customers expect no less.
Three roles are critical for sales organizations to thrive in this ever-changing environment — sales managers, boundary spanners, and early experience teams.
Sales managers. Their core role is to lead, coach, motivate, and manage their salespeople. With complex sales, sales managers also engage with customers. Now, with digital channels in the mix, sales managers contribute to the customer experience in new ways, including by coordinating digital and personal sales channels, encouraging sales team collaboration, and supporting salespeople’s use of data and technology for bringing value to customers. Further, managers are key agents for propagating change. As managers support the transformation of their salespeople, managers too will need to embrace a new role and mindset. For managers who grew up in an environment of top-down transfer of accountability, or who are themselves digitally hesitant, this is a big role change.
Boundary spanners. The task of architecting and evolving the nexus of digital channels and salespeople is not trivial. People who understand both personal selling and technology — what we call boundary spanners — play a key role in helping sales organizations navigate the journey. Poorly done, such efforts can quickly devolve into finger pointing. Technology leaders claim, “Salespeople are not sharing their activity data,” while salespeople say “I know my customers, but the system is telling me to do something different. It’s frustrating.” Boundary spanners are crucial in helping bring digital to sales. But perhaps more importantly, they also help bring sales to digital by ensuring solutions are well designed and implemented effectively.
Early experience teams. With today’s rapid pace of change, there is always something new to experiment with or adapt to. Sales organizations are finding it especially useful to use early experience teams (EETs), a small group of users who pilot new tools or approaches in a controlled environment. EET members provide feedback on usability, functionality, and overall experience. The feedback helps identify adjustments for improving adoption and impact. EET members can serve as internal advocates and can also help sales forces support the rollout of the new approach. EET members be evangelists as well; salespeople are more likely to trust their peers on issues of value and impact.
Companies, such as Microsoft, deal with customers and deals of all sizes. The sales channels used can range from self-service websites to inside sales to field sales, with key account teams for the largest customers. Other companies use some or all these channels.
Implementing the needed sales system and culture changes is easiest with inside salespeople who are accustomed to using digital prompts to guide conversations with customers. Key account managers (KAMs) and their teams also tend to take these changes in stride, as KAMs already orchestrate resources and are firmly in control of customer relationships. The more daunting challenges and disruptions are for the field salespeople in the middle who may feel they are losing power to digital channels. The sellers that win will be those that move faster than their competitors to break down barriers to creating a compelling customer experience.